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Old 01-19-2010, 10:23 PM   #1
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Default Hall of Fame Inductee: Kazushi Sakuraba

The date is June 26th 2005. He is sitting in his corner with hands on his knees, blood trickling down his face, and he can barely prise open his swollen eyes. His gaze lingers toward the center of the ring just in time to focus his vision on his adversary, standing triumphantly with hands raised to the sky. His attention pans out to the crowd, where legions of his fans are aghast with hands across their faces, brows furrowed with concern for their champion. Swarmed by his teammates fruitlessly trying to treat the swelling on his face, he stands to a vociferous round of applause. Bloodied battered, and very nearly broken, he turns to face the crowd. This man is Kazushi Sakuraba; a mixed-martial arts legend.

That, was Sakuraba’s most devastating loss, and some say that he never fully recovered from the beating he endured at the hands of Ricardo Arona. But with for a warrior such as Sakuraba, his losses say just as much about his character as his victories. "Saku" as he his fondly called by his fans, has had more than his fair share of lows, having been stopped in the past by Igor Vovchanchyn, Wanderlei Silva (three times), Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, Antonio "Nino" Schembri, Ricardo Arona (as previously detailed), and most recently by Melvin Manhoef. On each of those occasions Sakuraba has not only lost to his opponents, but failed to even go the distance, having either been beaten severely or even separated from consciousness in brutal fashion. We have sat back and witnessed these brutal beatings taken by Sakuraba, usually at the hands of fighters naturally heavier than himself and often by fighters in their prime, when he is removed from his. Seeing this, however, does not lessen our opinions of him, it merely serves to enforce our abiding admiration of not only his skill and will to compete, but also his true fighter’s spirit. Sakuraba may have a seemingly incongruous record, he may have those devastating losses, and he may not be the most accomplished fighter in MMA history, but to myself and many other fans of this sport, when it really comes down to it in our hearts, he stands out as a larger than life combat relic, a priceless Japanese treasure.

Acknowledging his career pitfalls only draws greater attention to Sakuraba’s highest achievements, some of which rank firmly alongside those of the sport’s fellow all time greats. At a time when the Gracie name was the most revered and feared in MMA, Sakuraba took it upon himself to overcome their dominance in a string of celebrated wins against Ryan, Royler, Renzo and of course, Royce. His fight with Royce Gracie will always remain one of the most renowned encounters in MMA history. Defying the challenging rules (preset by the Gracie family themselves with the intention of giving their man the upper hand), Sakuraba seemingly toyed with Royce for 90 minutes, doing what was considered almost unimaginable at the time. “Saku” frequently engaged the BJJ expert on the ground, even getting the better of those exchanges as he came tantalizingly close to ending the contest with a knee-bar. The deciding factor that day was Sakuraba’s superiority as a complete mixed-martial artist. The stalemate taking place on the ground was overcome with Sakuraba's advanced wrestling ability and punishing leg kicks, along with his inspirational use of the Brazilian’s gi against him. The combination of these skills forced the Gracie corner to finally concede defeat and, with one despondent throw of a towel, Sakuraba was crowned the victor. The triumph not only served to ameliorate Sakuraba’s legacy, it confirmed his standing, at the time, as the greatest fighter in the world.

That is Kazushi Sakuraba. As appealing as it is given the sheer laudability of it, I will refrain from simply going through the motions here and giving you all a thorough account of Sakuraba’s glittering MMA career. That is something that not only most MMA fans are already well aware of, but something that anybody can find for themselves with the aid of Wikipedia.

At his peak, Sakuraba transcended MMA in Japan, more than just a fighter, more than just a legend, he was an unparalleled superstar. The Japanese public had, for the first time in the PRIDE era, a fighter that they could truly be proud of, for his accomplishments inside the ring as well as outside of it. For the first time since the days of Pancrase’s dominance, Japan could boast the best fighter in the world and boast they did. PRIDE was growing and MMA in Japan was practically exploding – Sakuraba had shown that Japanese MMA could truly be great once again. Not only that, but he was proving that Japanese fighters could not only compete with their American and Brazilian counterparts, but they could dominate them and the sport’s headlines simultaneously.

You often hear talk of how a mixture of Tito Ortiz, The Ultimate Fighter, Chuck Liddell’s rivalry with Randy Couture, and Forrest Griffin’s fight with Stephan Bonnar finally thrust MMA into mainstream culture within North America. Well in Japan MMA was doing more than becoming mainstream; it was quickly developing into a nation-wide phenomenon, and Sakuraba was Tito, Chuck, Randy, TUF, Griffin and Bonnar, all rolled into one. During Sakuraba’s prime, he was possibly the biggest global superstar in MMA and stirred-up levels of excitement in Japan that they have yet to replicate, despite their best efforts.

Imagining MMA history without Sakuraba, is essentially imagining MMA history without PRIDE. As without that national superstar to latch onto and put their faith in, it is hard to believe that the Japanese public would have enthused and supported the once great promotion as obstinately as they did. Sakuraba did not just give us some of the most memorable moments in MMA history in his own fights, but he paved the way – with both his fighting style and sheer level of recognition – for Japanese MMA to progress, and for PRIDE as an organization to dominate the MMA scene in the early years of the new millennium.

At the end of it all, it is clear to me now that this man almost singlehandedly “dispelled the Gracie myth”, he enticed a countless number of enthusiasts into the sport with his enthralling antics, and Sakuraba paved the way for risk takers on the ground, always looking to appeal to the crowd. Whether he was delivering his trademark double Mongolian chop, snatching a kimura while his opponent had his back, or even cart-wheeling past his adversary’s guard, win or lose, Sakuraba always fought with the crowd in mind and he always put on a show.

Even now, when even his most ardent supporters such as myself will admit that he is no longer what he was, Sakuraba put on one of the most exciting displays of skill and heart of the year against Zelg Galesic back at DREAM 12. His consistent displays of concurrent skill, heart, and class, have almost as much to do with his prominence in MMA history as his staggering achievements themselves. From his debut at UFC Japan, to his present day exploits, Saku has inspired an entire generation of MMA fans and fighters, and he warrants just as much credit for the sport’s current success as anybody else does.

The man himself said back at UFC Japan, upon winning his rematch with the larger Marcus Silveira, “In fact, professional wrestling is strong,” and if anybody has proved that to us over the years it is none other than Sakuraba himself. More importantly, in a sport such as this one, filled with heroic achievements and daring exploits, Kazushi Sakuraba stands at the forefront of the pack as a pioneer who redefined the mixed martial arts game and contributed to it, some of the most exciting displays of competition ever witnessed on canvas.

Sakuraba’s innovation inside of the ring alone made him an MMA legend. However, it is his influence outside of it, which inspired legions of fans and propelled PRIDE and Japanese MMA to unsurpassed levels of popularity, thus making him a global superstar. Sakuraba built the path for almost every star that came after him in the now defunct Japanese promotion. Tales of Sakuraba’s exploits inside of the ring will undoubtedly live on, but be sure to always remember his impact outside of it too, as that is what makes him a more than deserving inductee to the FightLockdown.com MMA Hall of Fame.

Career Breakdown:
- Career Record: 26-12-1

- Notable Wins: Carlos Newton, Vitor Belfort, Guy Mezger, Royce Gracie, Renzo Gracie, Quinton Jackson, Kevin Randleman, Ken Shamrock, Masakatsu Funaki

- Accomplishments/Titles: UFC Ultimate Japan HW Tournament Champion

- Defining Moment: In a career that had many, none was bigger than Sakuraba's 90-minute victory over Royce Gracie.
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